Robert Taubman

Robert Taubman is head of the Department of Humanities at Bristol Polytechnic.

Double Life

Robert Taubman, 19 May 1983

Like a Victorian novel, The Philosopher’s Pupil ends with a valedictory coda. Good-bye Emma, good-bye Pearl. They have ‘become (and I predict will steadily remain) fast friends, bringing a lot of affection, happiness and wisdom into each other’s lives’. It’s an amiable convention, pretending that these are real people, and that ‘affection, happiness and wisdom’ are real values and not just a touching illusion. But it’s only a pretence, considering what the preceding 500 pages have done to knock any meaning out of such words. Iris Murdoch juggles with reality and illusion, playing with the possibilities of ‘as if’; and there’s some mockery of her puppet-characters in the assumption of this coda that they could ever merge into real life.

Holocaust Art

Robert Taubman, 10 January 1983

In the preface to Days of Contempt, André Malraux alerted his readers to the fact that ‘it is the concentration camps that are dealt with here.’ This was in 1935, and the first of Hitler’s concentration camps had been established only two years earlier. But this preface is misleading, for the novel is neither informative nor prophetic about the concentration camps – what it mainly reveals is the conditioning power of the historical imagination. Its hero hardly differs from the prototypes of the Romantic revolutionary, and his prison is not a camp but a stone vault. You wouldn’t think that more than a hundred years had passed since Fidelio. But as the names Dachau or Buchenwald began to appear more widely in the literature of the Thirties, it was clear that they referred to a new phenomenon – not to traditional prisons but to hutted camps spreading throughout Germany – and to a new concept: not just a way of dealing with political prisoners, but internal repression on a vast scale, embodying the very meaning of the totalitarian state.

Beckett’s Buttonhook

Robert Taubman, 21 October 1982

Beckett our contemporary – readers and audiences undoubtedly respond to him as a contemporary – is all the same very much a creature of the Twenties. He is the last great Modernist. His plays make use of Twenties techniques: hypnotic spotlights, loudspeakers, expressionistic props and highly-organised speech rhythms. Ill seen ill said is bafflingly obscure, not in any new and unfamiliar way, but in the now historic Modernist manner that uses metaphor and symbolism to half-suggest a meaning. It plays the old trick of the far-flung allusion – for instance, to the statue of Memnon at Thebes, to Michelangelo and to King Lear. It will give more work to the scholars who have already erected a monument to Beckett. He belongs with the generation of writers, like Joyce and Eliot, whose work requires such attention.


Robert Taubman, 7 October 1982

‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Perhaps rather carefully, the words at the head of Graham Greene’s new novel are ascribed to William Shakespeare rather than to Hamlet, but inevitably it’s Hamlet they bring to mind. Very Hamlet, this complete scepticism – but not, surely, very Graham Greene; and what has it to do with a novel on the theme of Don Quixote? Turgenev brought Hamlet and Don Quixote together, in an essay on the Russia of his time, in order to contrast the man who thinks like Hamlet and therefore cannot act, and the man impelled by his dreams to act like Don Quixote. But Greene doesn’t propose a contrast, and this is puzzling. Does he mean then to justify the Don in his delusions? Has Hamlet’s pyrrhonism become just a cue for freewheeling fantasy in the current fashion? Has Greene joined the Post-Modernists?


Robert Taubman, 5 August 1982

‘There was a story that began –’ begins Sabbatical, and the story is then interrupted for two nights and a day by a storm at sea, itself interrupted by a dialogue on Aristotle’s distinction between lexis and melos. Like most Post-Modernist fantasies, Sabbatical takes a lot of unpacking. But this is John Barth in holiday mood, and a virtuoso display of techniques brought together from different kinds of novel is here frankly offered for enjoyment. One of its methods is purely realistic: it is full of information, for instance, about sailing in the Chesapeake Bay. In the summer of 1980 Susan and Fenwick Turner are returning in their cruising sailboat from a nine-month voyage to the Caribbean. Sabbatical is as devotedly a novel about sailing as The Riddle of the Sands; and like that rather staid classic it uses a sailing trip to get its crew involved in a real-life mystery story. Where Erskine Childers was writing about the Kaiser’s invasion plans, Barth is writing about the CIA. An island not on the charts, a shot in the morning mist, deaths and disappearances occur, to a running commentary of texts and footnotes documenting CIA practices. And then there’s realism of a more sociological cast, in a trip ashore to Susan’s family at Fells Point, Baltimore. The period is almost exactly that of John Updike’s last Rabbit novel, and one recognises the same obsession with the placing of America at a moment in time – the stuff in the shops, the news items, the current stresses of family life, the curious national mood of confidence combined with irony, shame and foreboding.

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